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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Navalny Now: What The Wagner Coup Attempt Means For Putin's Jailed Enemy No. 1

From the depths of his prison cell, President Putin’s best-known opponent, Alexei Navalny, appears to have a plan for how to turn Yevgeny Prigozhin's failed uprising into new momentum for his cause for democracy and regime change in Moscow.

Navalny Now: What The Wagner Coup Attempt Means For Putin's Jailed Enemy No. 1

Alexei Navalny attends a court hearing via video link.

Benjamin Quénelle


MOSCOW — "We no longer want our country to live with corruption, lies and bureaucracy," said Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man who dared to challenge the president who has been in power for almost a quarter of a century.

Prigozhin's crude words and offensive tone were in stark contrast to the propaganda of public television. A master in direct communication, the founder of the Wagner Group mercenaries broadcast his shocking words over social media.

Taken by surprise, Vladimir Putin called for national unity and condemned this “political adventurer.” But he never mentioned his name. For a few hours on June 24, the man who had suddenly become the main anti-Kremlin opponent succeeded in shaking the regime. It was an unexpected role for Prigozhin, Putin's "cook" turned "traitorous putschist.”

Ironically, during his flamboyant but futile “march” to Moscow, the Wagner Group chief borrowed from the slogans and outspoken style of Alexei Navalny, Putin's jailed anti-corruption critic.

Prigozhin's plagiarized speeches

On the road to his insurrection, the impetuous paramilitary, a conservative and nationalist voice, repeated almost word for word the speeches and positions of the anti-corruption lawyer and denouncer of the oligarchy, a nationalist figured turned hero of the anti-Putin liberals.

"There is no greater threat to Russia than Putin's regime," Navalny said.

Over those crazy hours that shook the Kremlin on June 24, he was as incisive and ironic as ever, posting on Twitter, from the depths of his prison cell that Prigozhin's insurrection demonstrated that Putin "is so dangerous for the country that even his inevitable collapse is a threat of civil war. Dictators and the usurpation of power always lead to disorder, state weakness and chaos."

The president doesn't control everything. On the contrary, everything can change very quickly.

More than two years after his arrest, and with a sentence of 11 and a half years behind bars, the Kremlin’s most famous opponent faces a further 30 years in prison. This time for "organizing extremism”.

Since his return to Moscow in January 2021, five months after his mysterious poisoning in Siberia and lengthy treatment in Germany, Navalny has been tried and imprisoned on relatively minor charges: "violation of judicial control" due to his absence abroad (two and a half years in prison) and "swindling" his supporters (nine years in prison).

The judicial machine has now brought seven new charges against him, in connection with his anti-corruption fund. The new trial opened on Monday June 19 — five days before Prigozhin's "rebellion", which Navalny's supporters followed with a mixture of fascination and optimism.

Back in chummier times, Vladimir Putin tours Yevgeny Prigozhin's food production plant.


Khodorkovsky’s choice

The Wagner boss is not their friend, however. On the surface, Yevgeny Prigozhin embodies everything Alexei Navalny denounces: corruption and devotion, more than 30 years of closeness and loyalty to Vladimir Putin. "But what if our salvation came from a man in the system, a traitor capable of overthrowing it from within? Then it's up to us to take advantage…” says Igor, a long-time supporter of Alexei Navalny, his anti-corruption fund and his anti-Putin protests.

"Prigozhin's coup was a reminder of the fragility of the supposed verticality of power: the president doesn't control everything. On the contrary, everything can change very quickly..."

Alexi Navalny and his lawyers waited until the end of the uprising to speak out. Another voice from the liberal opposition intervened in the early hours: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ex-oligarch and former boss of the Yukos oil group, who took refuge in London after spending ten years in prison in Russia.

“The head of the Wagner group is neither our friend nor our ally,” he admitted, but “his rebellion is a unique opportunity to bring down the regime.” Other liberal opposition figures have similarly called for taking advantage of the Wagner insurrection.

The elite's wavering support

“An unlikely alliance. But why not?” asks Galia Ackerman, an expert at Desk Russie, an online media outlet in Paris that deciphers Russian news. The Moscow elites are showing cracks in their support for the Kremlin. They have long known the war in Ukraine cannot be won. They see that Western sanctions will eventually have a strong effect on the Russian economy. These elites could end up changing sides…”

Away from these events and in prison, Navalny could ultimately benefit from Prigozhin's "coup" and Putin's weakened regime. “Many signs are pointing to something happening. For example, during the rebellion, very few political officials spoke out to repeat Putin's message condemning Prigozhin,” says Tatiana Kastueva-Jean, Russia’s expert at Ifri, a French think-tank.

“And the business elite can see that the head of the Kremlin is weakened. During Prigozhin's uprising, private jets were flown in to temporarily leave Moscow…”

A trial out of sight 

As a first step, the Kremlin could react by stepping up the repression against any dissenting voices. Once again, Navalny would be the main target in the new prosecution for “extremism". The trial will not be held in a court of law but inside his current prison: the IK-6 penal colony at Melekhovo, in the Vladimir region, 200 km (124 miles) from Moscow— a rare procedure usually used for sick prisoners.

"The machine will not stop and Putin will go all the way."

It’s a way of keeping the hearings far from journalists and any partisan demonstrations. The authorities hope that the opposition leader will be forgotten and people will become indifferent to him. On June 4, his 47th birthday, support rallies were held in various Western capitals. But in Moscow and its regions, only a few rebels dared to take to the streets with a simple sign: "Happy birthday, we won't forget you!" Around a hundred of them were arrested and prosecuted.

"The very fact of launching this new trial for extremism, and the threat of a 30-year prison sentence, means that in his mind, Vladimir Putin sees himself ruling Russia for another three decades. Any competitor must therefore be eliminated from the political landscape, with Alexei Navalny first on the list, warns Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert at the Carnegie Foundation, the American think-tank that had to close its offices in Russia.

“With this trial launched before Prigozhin's coup, the message was already clear. The lesson was to be learned by all: the machine will not stop and Putin will go all the way," says the man who remains one of the few political scientists critical of the Kremlin still present in Russia.

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, his lawyers Vadim Kobzev and Olga Mikhailova during a visiting session of the Moscow City Court.

Sofya Sandurskaya/TASS

Role reversal 

From his prison cell, Alexei Navalny has developed a strategy to ensure that he is not forgotten: turning the tables and suing his jailers. Catching the authorities at their own game, he has multiplied his complaints about the conditions of his incarceration. This judicial guerrilla war is a way of pursuing political rebellion in court, for a man who has already been sent to solitary confinement a total of 16 times.

"The court must remember that I am a dangerous and serious criminal..." he mocked on May 22, during a hearing at the Kovrov court attended by French media Les Echos.

Navalny keeps his verbal talent and irony. Slimmer and with tired features, he appears only through a television screen, hung on a wall in a small courtroom in this small gloomy provincial town. This is now Navalny’s daily judicial routine, broadcasted by video to the courtroom from a tiny room in the prison. The only tenuous but regular link with the outside world.

While the vast majority of prisoners silently endure prison rules, Navalny takes advantage of the slightest loophole to file a complaint. Time after time, he has denounced the lack of lighting in his cell, the overly opaque windows, the paint and walls covered in dirty lime, the absence of hot water and ventilation, the lack of hygienic rules...

In one of the most surreal moments of these long judicial hours, he also opposed his chief guard, who was on the defensive about the choice of TV channels imposed on prisoners. Turning the courtroom around, Navalny managed to talk a lot during these hearings, in first instance and then on appeal, and even in Moscow before the equivalent of the supreme court.

Never backing down 

In April, those close to him were getting worried. The political dissident, who lost more than eight kilos in two weeks, had suffered a seizure during one of his stays in a disciplinary cell. He was suffering from a mysterious stomach bug which, they said, could be similar to slow poisoning.

But today, Navalny seems to be back in shape. "His mood is positive. And he still has a sense of humor. Otherwise, he'd go crazy! But does he see any perspective, any end to all this?" confides Alexandre Fedoulov, his lawyer who is following his case against the prison administration.

He passes messages, written or spoken, to his lawyer intended for his family but also for his supporters on social media. "The main thing here..." insists Alexander Fedulov. “The Kremlin has tried to cut Alexei Navalny off from the world but he resists.”

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